I grew up in a reasonably large, Italian-American family. Collectively, we were loud. We were brash. We probably sounded like an expletive-fueled tornado heading square for your face if you ever happened to cross our path in public.
One thing we were not, however, was religious. That’s a bit of a loaded statement, to be quite honest. On the surface, we seemed religious. We went to church most Sundays and stood in the back with the masses on holidays. We went to Sunday school. Made our baptisms and communions and confirmations, but under the surface we were nothing more than the stereotypical, northeast Roman Catholic family. Let’s just say we didn’t make religion the focal point of our lives, even if it was present in a wholly academic, make-you-feel-guilt-everday kind of way.
Now I live in what is commonly referred to as the Bible Belt: a stretch of the southeastern United States known for having more churches per square mile than people in some cases. And, well, religion still isn’t a focal point for me. Spirituality, yes. But religion? Not my bag.
That said, my move to the South did help me to understand and respect some things about organized religion that I didn’t quite notice before. The church, for example, still serves as the centerpiece of many small town communities in this nation. It is a place that theoretically welcomes all, that motivates citizens to give back to their communities, and, perhaps most important to the mix, serves as the physical embodiment of togetherness for a group of folks.
Organized religions remain to have their problems in my humble opinion, but my life in the South has revealed to me that a church–such as the First Presbyterian Church on Main Street in my adopted hometown of High Point, North Carolina–are meeting places above all else. In a world strangely tethered together by fiber optic cables alone, the church in a small, Southern town gives us physical contact. A place to watch a Christmas recital or eat a whole mess of pancakes in the name of raising money for charity.
I’m not going to get into arguing about individual belief systems, because my man John Coltrane–High Point’s favorite son and the chief inspiration in my upcoming young adult novel, On the Way to Birdland–would never focus on something so personal. So trivial. Instead, he’d recognize a church like First Presbyterian for what it is–a beautiful structure to be admired, and a place where spirituality in all its forms can flow from one human to another. A place where, underneath the customs and traditions of a particular group, is perhaps the only common religion humanity has to offer: LOVE.
That’s what my protagonist, Cordy Wheaton, comes to find out after a long journey that reveals to him the heart of a man–his father–who’d spent so much of his life preaching to his own children from the pulpit of a church just like First Presbyterian that he’d forgotten how important it was to simply see his children for who they are.
I hope you’ll pre order a copy of On the Way to Birdland from wherever books are sold. Or you can do your part to support indie bookstores and authors by using this link to request a signed copy to be mailed directly to you just after our release day on June 8. Happy reading, y’all!